Getting started with XS

eXtendable Subroutines (XS) are subroutines written in C that are callable from Perl code. There are two common reasons you’d want to use XS: there is a C library you’d like to use with Perl, or you want to make a subroutine faster by processing it in C instead of Perl.

This tutorial will walk you through all the components needed to get up and running with a basic XS example. There will be a lot of new terms and concepts:

If you want to write XS, you have to learn it. Learning XS is very difficult

Steven W. McDougall

Try not to get discouraged if things don’t click right away: I promise you that learning XS can be hugely rewarding: you’ll develop the power to write lightning fast code; get a better understanding of how Perl internals work, and be able to integrate any C library you choose and use it from Perl.


There are a few basic components needed to write an xsub. The first is a Perl module that will provide the namespace for any XS functions. This is all that’s needed:

package XS::Tutorial::One;
require XSLoader;


This file should be saved as lib/XS/Tutorial/ XSLoader::load by default searches for XS code that matches the package name it is called from*.

Let’s create a main distribution module too:

package XS::Tutorial;
BEGIN { our $VERSION = 0.01 }

=encoding utf8

=head1 NAME

XS::Tutorial - documentation with examples for learning Perl XS


That file should be saved as lib/XS/

The next thing we need is a .xs file which defines the xsubs to be loaded by XS::Tutorial::One:

#define PERL_NO_GET_CONTEXT // we'll define thread context if necessary (faster)
#include "EXTERN.h"         // globals/constant import locations
#include "perl.h"           // Perl symbols, structures and constants definition
#include "XSUB.h"           // xsubpp functions and macros
#include <stdlib.h>         // rand()

// additional c code goes here

MODULE = XS::Tutorial::One  PACKAGE = XS::Tutorial::One

 # XS code goes here

 # XS comments begin with " #" to avoid them being interpreted as pre-processor
 # directives

unsigned int

This file should be saved as lib/XS/Tutorial/One.xs. The top half of the file is pure C code. The line beginning MODULE = XS::Tutorial::One indicates the start of the XS code. This section will be parsed and compiled into C code by xsubpp.

The MODULE and PACKAGE directives define the Perl module and package which will load any xsubs we define. The line PROTOTYPES: ENABLE tells xsubpp to define subroutine prototypes for any xsubs we create. This is usually what you want: prototypes can help Perl catch compile time errors.

The last two lines of the file are an xsub:

unsigned int

The first line defines the return type. The second line does two things: it indicates the name of the C function to be called and it defines the signature of the xsub.

In this case we’re calling rand and accepting no parameters. This isn’t Perl’s built-in rand function, this rand comes from stdlib.h.

The final thing we need is a Makefile.PL script - as XS code is compiled, we need a tool to build it before we can use it:

use 5.008005;
use ExtUtils::MakeMaker 7.12; # for XSMULTI option

  NAME           => 'XS::Tutorial',
  VERSION_FROM   => 'lib/XS/',
  PREREQ_PM      => { 'ExtUtils::MakeMaker' => '7.12' },
  ABSTRACT_FROM  => 'lib/XS/',
  AUTHOR         => 'David Farrell',
  CCFLAGS        => '-Wall -std=c99',
  OPTIMIZE       => '-O3',
  LICENSE        => 'freebsd',
  XSMULTI        => 1,

The ExtUtils::MakeMaker docs explain these options.

But let’s talk about XSMULTI. This is a relatively new feature which allows you to have separate .xs files for modules. By default EUMM assumes the xs file matches the distribution name. In this case that would mean having a single Tutorial.xs file, with multiple xs MODULE and PACKAGE declarations in it. By using XSMULTI, we can have multiple XS files, one for each module in the distribution instead.

*Actually it searches for compiled C code but the effect is the same.


Now we should have four files:


The following commands will build the distribution:

$ perl Makefile.PL
$ make

A minor essay to understand xsubpp generated C

make creates a bunch of files, but take a look at lib/XS/Tutorial/One.c. This is the output of xsubpp. If you look closely enough, you can find the lines of C code from lib/XS/Tutorial/One.xs in there. But checkout what happened to our rand xsub:

XS_EUPXS(XS_XS__Tutorial__One_rand); /* prototype to pass -Wmissing-prototypes */
    dVAR; dXSARGS;
    if (items != 0)
       croak_xs_usage(cv,  "");
  unsigned int        RETVAL;

  RETVAL = rand();

xsubpp has replaced our XS code with some rather ugly C macros! These macros are part of the Perl interpreter’s C API. Many are documented in perlapi and they are usually defined in XSUB.h or perl.h in the Perl source code.

So what are these macros doing? At a high level, dVAR and dXSARGS setup the global pointer stack and some local variables. items is a count of the arguments supplied to the xsub. As rand is a void function, if this isn’t zero, it croaks. croak_xs_usage takes a coderef and an args string. In this context cv is the xsub, and there are no args so the string is empty.

Next the code declares RETVAL, the return value of the xsub. dXTARG initializes the TARG pointer. Next rand() is called its return value assigned to RETVAL. XSprePUSH moves the stack pointer back one, and PUSHu copies RETVAL into TARG and pushes it onto the global stack pointer. XSRETURN returns from the xsub, indicating how many arguments it added to the stack, which in this case, is one.

Writing XS, you usually don’t need to study the generated C code, but it’s helpful to have an awareness of the process.


Now the code is compiled, install it with:

$ make install

If you’re using system Perl, you may need to use sudo to install. Now we can test the module using a one liner:

$ perl -MXS::Tutorial::One -E 'say XS::Tutorial::One::rand()'

It works! Did you try running it twice though?

$ perl -MXS::Tutorial::One -E 'say XS::Tutorial::One::rand()'

We get the same pseudorandom sequence each time… We need to call srand to seed the sequence. That function is already provided by stdlib.h, so all we need to do is append the following text to lib/XS/Tutorial/One.xs:

  unsigned int seed

This xsub is different to the first one: its return type is void which means it returns nothing. It also includes a parameter called seed in its signature, and the last line defines it as an unsigned int.

Rebuild and install the distribution:

$ make && make install

Now we can seed the pseudorandom sequence by calling srand before rand:

$ perl -MXS::Tutorial::One -E 'XS::Tutorial::One::srand(777);\
say XS::Tutorial::One::rand()'

We used a lucky (777) seed number, and rand emitted a different number, yay!

Did we beat Perl?

As you know by now, xsubs are often faster than pure Perl code. We’ve built two xsubs for rand and srand, which are also available as built-in functions in Perl. Do you think the xsubs are faster? Here’s a benchmark from my machine:

              Rate xs_rand bi_rand
xs_rand 15691577/s      --    -64%
bi_rand 43095739/s    175%      --

Oh no! Despite our rand xsub directly calling the C stdlib function, it’s miles slower than Perl’s built-in rand. This isn’t because xsubs are slow, rather that Perl’s built-in functions are really fast. There is an overhead associated with calling xsubs which built-in functions do not pay.


Instead of running one liners to check our code works, we can write unit tests. Here’s a basic script:

use Test::More;

BEGIN { use_ok 'XS::Tutorial::One' }

ok my $rand = XS::Tutorial::One::rand(), 'rand()';
like $rand, qr/^\d+$/, 'rand() returns a number';

ok !defined XS::Tutorial::One::srand(5), 'srand()';
ok $rand ne XS::Tutorial::One::rand(), 'after srand, rand returns different number';

Save this file as t/one.t. Assuming you built and installed the distribution already, you can just do:

$ perl t/one.t
ok 1 - use XS::Tutorial::One;
ok 2 - rand()
ok 3 - rand() returns a number
ok 4 - srand()
ok 5 - after srand, rand returns different number

Now when building the distribution in the future, you should do:

$ perl Makefile.PL && make && make test

This will rebuild and test the distribution. Because XS code is compiled, writing tests and using that one liner, you can quickly cycle through coding and testing.

Don’t forget to add Test::More to the PREREQ_PM entry in Makefile.PL. When you don’t have a specific minimum version, you can just use 0:

PREREQ_PM => { 'Test::More' => 0, 'ExtUtils::MakeMaker' => '7.12' },


Building distributions generates a lot of temporary files. ExtUtils::MakeMaker provides a realclean routine:

$ make realclean

This will delete all the build files and reset the working directory to normal.


  • This article and code are on CPAN as XS::Tutorial::One
  • XS Mechanics by Steven W. McDougall is my second favorite :) XS tutorial
  • perlxs defines the keywords recognized by xsubpp
  • perlapi : C macros used to interact with Perl data structures (and the interpreter)
  • The stdlib.h man page defines the C standard library functions and types
  • For writing Makefile.PL files: ExtUtils::MakeMaker docs are invaluable
  • Perl’s built-in rand and srand functions

This article was originally posted on


David Farrell

David is a professional programmer who regularly tweets and blogs about code and the art of programming.

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